Third down is both good news, bad news scenario for Colts

Colts

SEPTEMBER 27: The Indianapolis Colts huddle up in the game against the New York Jets during the first quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – This isn’t the norm, which gives us one of those good news/bad news situations regarding the Indianapolis Colts and their work on the NFL’s most influential down.

That would be third down.

The good news: the defense has gotten its act together. Improving that area was one of coordinator Matt Eberflus’ points of emphasis during the offseason and the early returns are encouraging. The Colts are allowing conversions 32.3% of the time, the 4th-best mark in the NFL.

The bad news: Philip Rivers and the offense still are trying to find their way. They’ve moved the chains on just 30.3% of their third-down situations. That’s 32nd in a 32-team league.

“Yeah, it ticks us off a little bit obviously,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said Tuesday on a Zoom conference call. “Just gotta grind to work to continue to get better there.’’

The rankings not only are disparate, but also represent a dramatic flip in each unit’s modus operandi.

The offense generally has resided in the top half of the league rankings, and occasionally been better than that. In Andrew Luck’s final two healthy seasons, the Colts ranked 1st in 2018 (48.6%) and 7th in ’16 (43.1). They were 12th last season (41.5).

The defense, though, traditionally has found third down difficult to deal with. In Eberflus’ first two seasons, it was 27th (42.7% in ’19) and 23rd (41% in ’18). It was 31st and 25th the two seasons before his arrival.

Clearly, third down is when an offense either finds a way to move the chains or is forced to punt, and the defense makes a stop or stays on the field for another set of downs.

Eberflus explained his staff used the offseason to “self-scout’’ and determine how best to improve every facet of the defense.

“You look at your personnel and what can our guys do well in that situation or in that coverage or in that pressure,’’ he said. “That’s what we did.

“What can we improve on? What can our guys do? What makes it harder for the offense to figure out what you’re doing and how you’re doing it?’’

Cornerback T.J. Carrie credited the offseason work for his first career pick-6, which was part of the Colts’ 36-7 dismantling of the New York Jets. It came on the final play of the third quarter, a third-and-4.

“It was a dialed-up play by coach Flus,’’ Carrie said after the game. “A play that we kind of worked on all through camp that really came to life. Definitely a disguise play that we felt like would give the quarterback a different pose and pre-snap read.’’

One of the keys was linebacker Darius Leonard blitzing up the middle and speeding up Darnold’s internal clock.

“Forced him to make an unadvised decision,’’ Carrie said.

Whatever Eberflus has dialed up through the first three games has produced the desired results, whether it’s been mixing coverages on the back end or bringing different pressures.

The numbers simply don’t lie.

In the first three games, Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and Darnold have had little success converting third downs at all, and been especially ineffective through the air. That trio’s combined passing on third and fourth down: 10-of-21 for 92 yards with no touchdowns and three touchdowns. That’s a 20.4 passer rating.

Minshew’s 19-of-20 performance in the opener included 5-of-5 passing on third down, but that netted 30 yards and three of the Colts’ four sacks came on third down.

In the last two games, Cousins and Darnold have a combined 4.4 passer rating on third/fourth down (5-of-16, 61 yards, three interceptions). Both of the pick-6s against the Jets – Xavier Rhodes ignited the blowout with a 44-yard interception return in the first quarter – and the two safeties in consecutive games have come on third down.

While the defense is trending in the right direction, the offense remains in a third-down funk.

Easily lost in the comprehensive thrashing of the Jets was the offense converting only 3-of-10.

“It bothers me to look at third down, whatever we were, 3-for-10,’’ Frank Reich said after the game. “That bothers me.’’

Two days later, Sirianni agreed.

“We are definitely not where we want to be on third down,’’ he said. “We have really good personnel to be able to win one-on-one matchups. Our blocking is really outstanding. I just think it’s a bit of a lack of execution.

“Just need to execute better, put the players in better positions. It’s everybody. It’s all of us as a whole, starting with us as coaches just putting them in better positions to help them do their job and then executing against the different looks we’re getting.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing in particular.’’

It might be difficult for the Rivers-led offense to realize substantial improvement Sunday when they meet the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field. Chuck Pagano’s defense ranks 2nd in preventing third-down situations (31%).

Through three games, Rivers pretty much has done what was expected when Chis Ballard signed him to a one-year, $25 million contract. His 78.3 completion percentage leads the NFL while his 8.6 yards per attempt ranks 5th and his 794 yards are 12th.

But there’s a clear line of demarcation. On first and second downs, Rivers is completing 85.1% of his passes with a 109.6 rating. On third down, he’s 13-of-22 (59.1%) for 125 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. That’s a 52.3 rating, which ranks 28th among qualifying QBs.

 “I think Philip’s been playing outstanding in all areas, first, second and third down,’’ Sirianni said. “It’s definitely too early to just abandon any of our philosophies or anything like that. It is a small sample size and we’ve had a tough stretch to start off the season.

“It’s definitely nothing that Philip’s doing.’’

The offensive execution would benefit if the run game was more impactful in short-yardage situations. Remember Nyheim Hines’ failed fourth-and-1 at Jacksonville? Later in the game, rookie Jonathan Taylor was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1. Jordan Wilkins converted a third-and-1 against Minnesota after failing on a previous third-and-1.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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